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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
Subscribers Edition Stories & Photos
(Seattle & Northern 1890)
Covers from British Columbia to Puget sound. Counties covered:
Skagit, Whatcom, Island, San Juan. An evolving history dedicated
to the principle of committing random acts of historical kindness

Noel V. Bourasaw, editor 810 Central Ave., Sedro-Woolley, Washington, 98284
Home of the Tarheel Stomp Mortimer Cook slept here & named the town Bug

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Bill Newberg, Sedro-Woolley's corporate giant

(Newberg family 1917)
      The Newberg family at their Utopia farm in 1917. From left to right: Anna, mother, age 44; Mary, 16, Gladys, 19; Charley, father, 51; Bill, age 7; rabbit, age 1; dog, age 2, in the 1915 Model T for which Charley traded a horse, who knew his way home.

By Noel V. Bourasaw, Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore , ©2002
      Ed. note: Bill Newberg passed away on Dec. 7, 2003, after we conducted several interviews with him and wrote the article below. We have updated this story slightly at the time of the Indianapolis 500 race to honor Bill because, exactly 50 years ago, Bill drove the Pace Car while he was president of the Dodge Motor Company. The story below is from the archives of our separate Subscribers Edition. You can also read his obituary on this Journal website. We want to especially thank Bill's nephew, Harold "Ed" Hoyt of the Warner's Prairie district, who has kept an extensive scrapbook about his uncle.

      When I was growing up in the Utopia district east of Sedro-Woolley in the late 1950s, one year all of Utopia buzzed with the news that Bill Newberg, the most famous man to grow up in that bucolic country district, was being honored for his promotion to president of Dodge Motors in Detroit. We used to ride our bikes by his old farm on the Skiyou/Hoehn road and wonder how anyone from here could become such a famous corporate executive. We got our answer in 1955 when he introduced a blaze of color to Dodge cars that set them apart from their bland ancestors.
      In a Seattle Times rotogravure feature on July 10, 1955, Bill Newberg credited his wife with the color scheme. An accomplished watercolor artist, Dorothy Beck Newberg coined the exotic names for colors for the two-toned and triple-toned 1955 models: Parisian Blue, Sapphire White, Chiffon Green and Fantasy Yellow. Using 13 basic colors, Dodge color stylists created 48 combinations of exterior paint. In the article, Newberg also answered the question of who pried him loose from the lumber camps and sent him to the University of Washington after he graduated from Sedro-Woolley High School in 1929 — his mother, Anna. If not for her bugging him about the higher education she wished for him, he might have spent his adolescence here as a logger. How could she know that her boy would hob-nob with poets like Carl Sandburg 30 years later?
      In a 2001 interview, at age 92, he recalled the turning point that led him to fame. After he graduated from Sedro-Woolley High School in May 1929, he worked at the logging camp of gypo logger Gimpy McNeil on the south side of the Skagit. He notes that the big outfits like Lyman timber frowned on hiring high school students. One rainy Saturday night at the end of summer he dreaded the thought of a cold drizzly winter in the woods and Superintendent of Schools Shangle threw him a lifeline. Bill's mother implored Shangle to pull strings so Bill could gain admission to the University of Washington. On Monday he hopped a ride on a milk truck to Seattle and the Dean of Admissions told him that his application was a week late but he relented after a glowing recommendation from C. Paine Shangle, superintendent of Sedro-Woolley schools. A month after he started classes the stock market crashed but even that calamity did not faze the tall, lanky farm boy who worked in his off-school hours in all his teenage years. He would soon follow a course that rivaled any Horatio Alger story.

Immigrants from Sweden
(Poet Carl Sandburg with the Newbergs)
Dorothy and Bill Newburg with poet Carl Sandburg in 1960. All photos from the Bill Newberg collection.

      Bill's father, Charles John Newberg, was born in Sweden in 1867 and emigrated to the U.S. from Sweden in about 1883. He was the second oldest of five children born to a fruit and vegetable farmer whose name was Nyberg. The family home was in Tidaholm in the central part of Sweden, known well for its match factories. When Charles was just a boy, German soldiers attacked the town and the whole family fled to the hills. While some of his brothers emigrated to Iowa in the United States and settled there, Charles emigrated to that state early on but he eventually settled in Valentine, Nebraska, where he soon bought a ranch and raised cattle. He also worked for a nearby farmer who had a daughter, Anna Elizabeth Anderson. They married on April 6, 1898, and had two daughters there; Gladys was born in 1899 and Mary was born in 1901. Charley Americanized his name to Newberg, because that is how people pronounced it, and in 1906 he moved his little family to Seattle, which was becoming a magnet for Swedes. Charley was soon hired onto a construction crew to help clear stumps and brush on the residential area north of the University of Washington [hereafter UW] campus and put in sidewalks. He was later employed by the company that constructed the futuristic buildings for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which captivated audiences on the UW campus from June to October 1909.
      A group of Swedish immigrants from the town of Ytterhogdal visited the exposition that year from their temporary home in British Columbia and they met some people from Sedro-Woolley who convinced them to settle in the woods north of Duke's Hill. Charley may have met them then but he did not join their group. He did, however, move to the Utopia district, five miles east of Sedro-Woolley, in April 1911, four months after the birth of his only son William Charles on Dec. 17, 1910. There he bought a 40-acre tract of land around what was long called the Black Slough. His house was on the west side of the Skiyou/Hoehn road, just south of the intersection with the Burmaster road. Now dotted by pastureland and farms, the Utopia was then rugged country that was logged off at the turn of the century but hundreds of stumps remained where firs and cedar once stood north of the river. The name Utopia was apparently chosen after the area just down the Utopia road was once considered as a site for the Equality Colony, which was finally located near Bow and Alger in 1896. Those who lived in Utopia were mainly farmers and loggers, but one neighbor was a free thinker named William Bouck, who was nominated for vice president of the U.S. in 1924 on the Communist Party ticket.
      With the help of neighbors, Charley raised a barn in 1916 after he spent the first few years yanking out stumps with a steam donkey engine and burning them in piles 75 to 80 feet high. Nearly every spring and fall, however, the farmers had to be ready any time day or night to fight back the Skagit and its floodwaters. In the 1955 Seattle Times article, Newberg recalled:

      Whenever a chinook wind swept up the mountain slopes we knew the melting snow would bring heavy floods. One of my jobs was to get the cows out of the pasture to high land. Sometimes the river rose a foot an hour. Across the stream we had a bridge anchored by cable. Once the cows were cut off from the bridge by rising water I faced a tough problem. I felt like a marine cowboy trying to round up the herd. Finally I got an old cow named Lucy headed onto the bridge and fortunately the others followed, crossing safely and wading through rushing water on the other side. We had a raft for emergency use but sometimes the water was so deep you couldn't even pole the raft. Fish were plentiful when the floods receded. They'd be trapped in holes that that had been made when stumps were blasted out.
      Fifteen-year-old Bill got a harsh lesson about the right way and wrong way of laying shakes on the roof of their new barn. A neighbor known as Big Knute Anderson saw Bill nailing them wrong and gave him the worst chewing-out ever. The youngster learned the proper way and worked so hard as they completed the barn that he fell asleep when the neighbors threw a party and missed it entirely.
(Newberg family 1920s)
The Newberg family at home in Utopia about the time that Bill left for the University of Washingon. Anna, Gladys, Bill, Mary and Charley, circa 1925.

      Bill's first experience with a car was when his father bought a 1915 Model-T and traded in one of their horses for it; Bill originally learned to plow the fields with a team of light draft horses named Dick and Dolly. The next morning, Bill was surprised to see the horse back in the pasture; it had broken loose during the night and galloped right back home. His first experience of tinkering with engines, however, was with a Harley motorcycle that he bought for $35 in 1925; the next year he bought for $50.
      By then he boarded a schoolbus every day to Sedro-Woolley High School, which was a real luxury after walking a mile both ways to attend the old Utopia School, a three-room affair with two classrooms and an auditorium that stood between the Johnson and Betschart farms on the north bank of the river. In the 1929 Kumtux annual, we find that his peers noted his characteristic gruffness and they teased that his ambition was to be a sheik. In a preview of the next decade they characterized him as being scientific. For a farm boy who had chores before and after school, his extracurricular activities were extensive in his senior year: quartet, glee club and operetta on the musical side; senior play, stage crew and dramatic club on the creative side and track and field for sports. His earlier years were apparently more restricted by his chores, showing carnival, band, and dramatic club from freshman through junior years and basketball manager in his junior year. At home, when he was not practicing on the clarinet, he fished nearby trout streams, hunted pheasants and ducks and trapped muskrats.

Bill hits the ground running in the big city as the stock market tanks
      Although tuition, fees and board and room at the UW were not as relatively high as they are today, Bill realized that he would have to be frugal. He had saved money from his logging and other jobs during summer vacations and was determined to pay his own way, so that his parents did not have to strap themselves or hock the farm. His sister Gladys was married and living in Seattle and her husband's grandmother owned a boarding house on University Way. She said Bill could room and board there if he kept the sawdust-burner furnace fired up for the house. Partway through Bill's freshman year the houseboy at the UW Delta Gamma sorority flunked out and Bill moved up to room and board there plus $50 per month for performing any menial chore they needed. From Oct. 24-29, 1929, the worst stock market crash in history plunged the country into economic disaster, during his first semester, so the new job was very good news. Bill was driven so the chaos on Wall street did not seem to faze him. Early on, he proved his high school peers right as he followed his scientific interests and entered the mechanical engineering program. He proved to be especially adept and Professor Gilbert S. Schaller of the department recognized early on that Bill was a good student and quick learner.
      Bill entered the Naval ROTC program in his freshman year and the next summer, he went on an ROTC cruise to Hawaii on the U.S.S. Idaho. He liked the life on a ship and he soon hired out in the summers worked as a sailor-longshoreman for the Pacific Steamship Co. freighters that plied the waters from Seattle to Alaska, where there were no largely no longshoremen in the small ports. While a quarter of adult men were out of work, Bill worked up the ranks to where he made $1,200, then $1,400 on a dozen or more round trips.

Bill proves to be a natural salesman
(Indy Pace Car)
Bill Newberg (left) in his 1954 Dodge Indy Pace Car, along with Wilbur Shaw, chairman of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo courtesy of Ed Hoyt.

      As soon as he had some money spare, Bill started his long road towards his automotive career by buying a used 1925 Ford Roadster for $35 in his freshman year. The dealer was asking $65 but Bill exhibited his most important skill by jawboning him down. In our interview he recalled that over the next two years he helped pay for his expenses by trading used cars profitably, eventually buying a new Chevrolet. During his senior year his natural talents as a salesman caught the attention of Stan Sayres, who owned American Automobile Co., a Chrysler-Plymouth dealer at Broadway and East Madison who would become legendary in both Seattle and Detroit for both automobiles and his pioneering outboard hydroplanes. During the depths of the Depression only a salesman who knew and believed in his product and refused to take no for an answer could succeed. During the previous year, Bill sold some cars for Jack Darling, a dealer on Westlake avenue. One day when he returned from an Alaska run early in the summer, Bill brought Darling some fish and noticed a brochure in the showroom about the General Motors proving ground in Detroit. He studied the brochure during the quiet hours he spent on board ship during the next trip up North and he hatched a plan for his senior thesis. While many seniors wrote scientific or scholarly papers, Bill showed his creativity and his work experience by writing a paper that would be based on the real world. By then he knew the mechanics of cars and engines very well, so he spent his senior year learning the nitty-gritty of selling cars for Sayres while he polished the thesis that he drafted on the boat. He would call it: "The Road Testing of Low-Priced 1933 cars."
      "I road-tested Plymouths, Chevys and Fords," he says. "Dealers were eager for me to road test their vehicles and I called the Northwest Richfield Gas representative for gas. He provided a couple hundred gallons, which was in three grades back then." About that time, Bill decided that he liked the Chrysler Corporation best of all the auto manufacturers. "I had Detroit-fever. Everybody said 'stay away from Detroit,'" he recalled in a 1942 Seattle Post-Intelligencer interview. Times were tough everywhere and Earl Wilson, a Chrysler representative, tried to scare him by telling him about thousands of former auto workers on bread lines, but Bill would listen. Back home in Utopia, a neighbor offered him a good job driving a bread truck and he got another offer from the Valley Dairy, which was located a block south of Sedro-Woolley High School and the Carnegie Library. But their offers held no appeal for him. His parents were planning to move to Sedro-Woolley now that they were empty nesters. Back in 1928, his sister Mary married Robert Hoyt, the son of Joe Hoyt, pioneer Prairie mill owner, and his wife Annie, who was the daughter of Birdsview pioneer Capt. L.A. Boyd. In his last week at the UW, Bill won first prize for his innovative thesis. Then on the morning of his last day on campus he took his final exams for his Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering and that evening he boarded the train for a roundabout trip to his Mecca — Detroit.
      "I rode the train by way of Oakland and LA where I visited the GM and Chrysler plants," he said last year. While in California he visited the headquarters for Richfield Oil. Officers of the company tried hard to convince him to work for them, but he had his ticket to Detroit and would not be dissuaded, so they advanced him enough money to return just in case he could not find employment.

Detroit and an automobile career beckon
      "I stopped in Chicago long enough to see the Century of Progress Fair, he recalls" The fair, which celebrated the centennial of the founding of Chicago, opened just a couple of weeks before on May 27 and the exhibits from countries all over the globe and companies all over the country predicted a prosperous future by and by. Bill carefully compared all the automotive exhibits and became more determined to get a position with the Chrysler Corporation. Little did he know that nine years later he would come back to Chicago as chief engineer for the biggest manufacturing plant in the world. Flushed with excitement on his arrival in Detroit, Bill immediately began interviewing for the companies in the auto capital of the world, hoping all the while that Chrysler would choose him.
      "At that time the most saleable product I had was that thesis on road testing," Bill recalls. Soon he obtained a job as driver and mechanic in the road-testing department of Chrysler Corporation, his goal all along. With his student credentials from the UW, he became a student engineer and in the fall of that year, he was selected as one of ten engineering graduate students to continue their studies at Chrysler Institute of Engineering where he earned his master's degree in automotive engineering in 1935. At that point he became an experimental engineer and spent the next seven years learning every aspect of the automobile manufacturing and sales departments, from top to bottom. But when the U.S. entered World War II in December 1942, his career took a fork in the road that proved to be invaluable experience in a slightly different engineering field. Back in 1935 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army ordnance and was promoted to first lieutenant in the Reserves. In his work, however, he took on an even more awesome responsibility for the war effort.

Time out for the war effort and a promotion
(Newburg family 1940s)
Bill Newberg and his mother, Anna, and sister Gladys in the 1940s

      In one of the most tightly-kept secrets of the war, Chrysler Corporation's Dodge division teamed up with the Wright Aeronautical Corporation in early 1942 to produce hundreds of superfortress bombers which the Pentagon planned to eventually use to bomb Japan in retaliation for the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941. The partners quietly bought up 500 acres of prairie land in Southwest Chicago and started planning for round-the-clock production of B-29 bombers. Ground was broken for the tool plant on June 4, 1942, and the chief engineer for the entire project was William C. Newberg, former lumberjack and able seaman. The first machines arrived on August 15 that year and by October, more than 16,000 workers were busy assembling what would soon be the world's largest manufacturing complex. That fall, Charley and Anna visited Bill and Dorothy and their baby daughter Judith in their new home and Charley was thrilled to tour his son's plant and be photographed for the Courier-Times newspaper back in Sedro-Woolley. That November, Bill returned to Seattle for a visit and was interviewed by the Post-Intelligencer as he visited his old boss, Stanley Sayres. The showroom had hardly any customers and no new cars because of wartime restrictions, but Bill, soon made it clear that at age 42 he had one eye on the future of the car business:
      It's true that automobile production and automobile designing are 'out for the duration,' but just the same the design and type of a new car to be built after the war is taking place in engineers' minds. Don't expect much of a car the first year or so after the war. They won't have to be sensational — the public will buy almost anything. But three or four years after the war ends — then look for an automobile the like of which we've never dreamed about.
      In January 1944, six months ahead of schedule, the Dodge was producing the 2,200-horsepower Wright engines full time. By war's end, Chicago plant manufactured 18,413 of the engines and in June that year the B-29s began pounding the Japanese mainland with them. By war's end in 1945, Bill had proven his ability to direct the engineering of a vast project, but he longed to get back to Detroit in time to prepare for the demand for new cars that he knew was just around the corner. Chrysler Corporation had different plans for him, however; they assigned him to another branch of the company, Chrysler Airtemp division at Dayton, Ohio, which was mired in red ink as a result of the same wartime restrictions that impeded production of cars. Company executives realized that he was a problem solver and after two years of learning the processes of heating refrigeration and air conditioning manufacturing, he was appointed president of Airtemp in 1947. Under his leadership the subsidiary's business tripled by 1950.

1950: Newberg gets back in the auto business, this time at Dodge in Detroit
Drives Indy 500 pace Car
(Newberg family)
Charley, Anna and Mary Newberg, circa 1940

      In 1950 he was rewarded with a move back to Detroit, where he was appointed as vice president of the Dodge automotive division of Chrysler and the he was elected to the board of directors. On Sept. 4, 1951 he was appointed president of Dodge, a post he would fill until 1956. At age 40 he was one of the youngest executives in the business. In 1954 he was thrilled to be chosen to drive a Dodge pace car at the Indianapolis 500, where he met Roy Rogers, who became a friend. At the time he took over Dodge, that division was responsible for 50 percent of Chrysler's manpower. Besides manufacturing and marketing of Dodge cars and trucks, he also directed allied plant operations; foundry stamping; engine, transmission, and body assembly; and car-truck assembly plants. He reduced Dodge's direct labor and overhead through a budget control system, which he designed and later installed throughout Chrysler Corp. A mid-1950s study for Chrysler that was conducted by McKinsey & Co., New York management consultants, recommended that a single executive be placed in charge of all the corporate manufacturing and sales activities. They also specifically recommended Newberg for the position, so Bill served from 1956-58 as Group Vice President in charge of all auto divisions of Chrysler Corporation. He became Exec Vice President in 1958, then President of Chrysler Corporation in 1960. During that latter time he was privileged to host poet Carl Sandburg. Bill recalls that he flew in the corporate plane with the poet in June 1960 to attend the heavyweight championship fight when Floyd Patterson knocked out Ingemar Johansson, the Swede who had fists of "toonder and lightning."
      His leadership in attracting young men to the auto business and promoting them to key positions marked Newberg's tenure in the highest corporation offices. In many interviews in newspapers and magazines he insisted that the auto industry offered young men greater opportunity than any other field, and he shared his excitement about the possibilities for them in the engineering and research and development fields. At the UW, he was named Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus in 1956, the highest award that an alumnus could receive. The 1955 Seattle Times article revealed a fascinating aspect of his professional attitude and theories that ran counter to some of the auto executives of the day:

      [Bill Newberg explains that] "nowhere is there more misunderstanding that in the evaluation of the amount of the money that can be saved through automation. . . . Many kinds of automation might be rejected because they do not promise a net reduction in manpower, but they might prove most profitable if considered from the standpoint of safety, savings in floor space, improvement in quality or increased production.
      More important than space saving is the saving of life and limbs, for automation is the greatest boon to industrial safety in the history of the industrial age. The approach to automation strictly from the standpoint of reduction in productive labor is false economy. There is no doubt that some operations in manpower can be saved through the use of automated equipment. The overall effect of automation, however, probably will be to increase total employment.
      With increasing use of automation will come an increase in the number of persons in the category most of us consider nonproductive labor; that is, maintenance personnel and technical specialist who will concern themselves with the never-ending task of improving and refining mechanical processes."
      And Bill Newberg is determined to abandon equipment and methods approaching obsolescence — just as determined as he was to leave behind the milking pail on the Skagit farm and donkey engine in the woods.

      By the time Bill's parents visited him at the wartime Chicago plant, they had sold the Utopia farm and moved to Sedro-Woolley in 1942. Charley Newberg died here on Jan. 12, 1946. Anna Newberg continued to live in Sedro-Woolley until her death on Feb. 13, 1956, at age 81. After retiring from Chrysler in the early 1960s, Bill was an officer of the Detroit Bank of Trust and held various corporate positions. The family moved to Reno, Nevada, in 1974, where Bill was very active in real estate for the next 20 years. Bill and Dorothy moved this year to a retirement center. Dorothy fell in 1998 and Bill has been her loving caregiver for the past four years. The Newbergs have four children. Judy Bracken has a master's degree in architecture from MIT and is an environmental lawyer. Robert Newberg lives in Reno, where he operates an auto parts warehouse. James Newberg also lives in Reno, where he is a financial executive for international Game Technology, the largest slot machine manufacturer in the world. Bill Jr. is controller and chief financial officer of an electrical distributing company that has offices in both Reno and Las Vegas.
      Bill notes that he stopped riding motorcycles six years ago but he rode to Seattle in 1980.

Story posted on May 26, 2002, and updated on May 30, 2004
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